An Unfortunate Episode: Dragnet Season 3 Episode 21 — The Crimson Crusader

Captain Lightning isn't mad, he's just disappointed in this unfortunate episode of Dragnet.
Dragnet (Screen: NBC)

This is the city: Los Angeles, California. What follows is a cautionary tale from Dragnet of when cosplay at San Diego Comic Con goes too far.

This is the city: Los Angeles, California. These words are the “Call me Ishmael” of television procedurals. If we’re being real, Dragnet is not a good show. It’s passable, but Jack Webb’s stiff demeanor, clunky dialogue, and an uncertainty of how to interact with late-1960s counterculture makes this show an intriguing time capsule of…huh. However, without Dragnet we probably would not have any of the Law & Order series or an ironic appreciation of the histrionics of marijuana use.1 Also, I can’t think of a series earlier than this that made use of a repertory company of players week to week. This particular episode is filled to the gills with character actors who have each participated in a dozen or so episodes.

This episode, which is actually titled “Burglary: DR-31,” is not about drug use or the counterculture. Well, not the counterculture of the time, but fast forward to 2014 and San Diego Comic Con…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. The prologue features Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) delivering a voiceover about the history of the film industry moving to California in the early 1900s. It’s a chance to use some photo stills from the NBC archives and to talk about how for every person giving their all for the Industry, there’s also someone to do some taking. That’s where Friday comes in. He carries a badge.

Tuesday, March 14, 1969: Burglary Division, the Boss is Captain Mack. None of this is relevant as the entire story takes place over the course of a day and Captain Mack doesn’t appear. Instead, we see Friday sitting across from his partner Officer Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan) as he does some neck exercises. “Bill had his problems,” Friday narrates. I mean, yeah. That’s like 65% of the series. After the credits, we find out Gannon’s stiff neck is because his wife Eileen needs the window open to sleep. This leads to his crackpot theories about  women—they better cook and they better like the same TV shows as you or there will be no peace.2 This somehow leads to Gannon speculating about Friday’s prospects in finding a wife, but in a weird, almost slut-shaming sort of way. Again, none of this is relevant.

The inanity pauses as Friday takes a phone call. A handful of theaters in the Wilshire division have had some display cases busted and posters stolen. The Rex Theater on Clark near Foster was the most recent victim, so our heroes head out to investigate.

The current feature at the Rex is Captain Lightning vs. the Martian Devils. As Friday and Gannon avoid stepping on the broken display case glass, theater manager Mr. Breslin tells the detectives what happened. His explanation includes an elaborate description of what superheroes are. Okay, as the show’s title card told us, it’s 1969. Superman has been around for over 30 years at this point, including a long-running live action TV show, a few animated series, and even a Broadway musical in 1966.3 If the gist of a superhero is going over the heads of audience members, maybe Dragnet isn’t the show for them.

  1. Yes, there’s Reefer Madness, but that wasn’t always so accessible the way Dragnet was thanks to Nick at Nite in the early ’90s.  
  2. #YesAllWomen smile and nod during an episode of Bonanza to avoid another argument.  

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About Mike McComb 669 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: